A while back a professor commented to my class about the cover of a recent edition of The Word Among Us. He noted that the title was “The Gospel of Encounter,” and yet it featured something rather opposed to such a notion… A woman who actually “turned away from the Vicar of Christ,” as he put it, to take a selfie. (It’s the June 2015 issue.)
You have no doubt experienced the frustration of such things before, if you’ve ever been to Notre Dame, the Holy Sepulchre, or any major church or shrine. A lot of people are there just to snag photos.
I was recently at the Holy Father’s Sunday Angelus address, which is held weekly in St. Peter’s Square. Yes, it makes sense that people would take a picture or two, yes, it makes sense to have two large television screens with live streaming due to how far away the Pope’s window is. But what I noticed was something very odd and disconcerting: many people were taking pictures of the screens.
They were taking pictures. Of pictures.
“Little Johnny, look at this photo here, it’s from 40 years ago.”
“Oh boy, what’s it of, grandpa?”
“It’s a picture of some footage of the pope.”
“Wow, golly gee, that must have been special. But can’t I just look up the real thing on YouTube?”
“That’s not the point – I saw this footage in person.”
“I can too, grandpa, here it is. If only you had seen the pope himself!”
“I did, but the screen was just as interesting.”
Why aren’t people satisfied with a postcard from a famous church? Certainly, it’s not the 50 cents it costs, because people are likewise not satisfied with the professional quality footage that is now taken at every papal event and then immediately uploaded for the whole world to see. Is it really necessary that it’s on YOUR phone? Why not just soak in the experience instead, so that it’s actually in YOUR brain?
“I just want to remember it,” people will say. Well, first of all, if you need to take a picture to remember something, it couldn’t have been that spectacular, so why do you want to remember it? And you can’t remember something you never really encountered in sincerity anyway. The “flesh and blood” of the experience must be primary, the digitized “word” of the experience must be secondary.
In focusing too much on getting a picture, one immortalizes a moment that he never had.
God can’t be experienced directly in this life, only in the next life in the fullness of the Beatific Vision, where we will behold the Divine Essence “face to face.” For now it is always, as St. Paul says, “dimly in a mirror.” (1 Cor 13:12) Why are we so intent on adding yet another piece of glass to hide Him from ourselves?
Many years ago I traveled to Quebec. I was in some reenactment Native American village (or is it Native Canadian?), where my group was told by the guide that absolutely no pictures were to be taken of the masks inside one particular hut – that if this law was broken, our cameras would be too. Why? Because there was a belief that developed that taking a picture somehow steals the soul away from the object… It desecrates it, profanes it, sucks its life out. While we know that masks don’t have souls, and that cameras don’t half-kill what they capture images of, perhaps this is not far off from the truth, but in the opposite direction: taking pictures of the sacred, if done irreverently, is bad for the photographer’s soul. It half-kills the experience he could have had. It has profaned and desecrated his relationship to it.
Now, there can be good photography of the sacred. There is plenty of it, actually. But good sacred photography is never done out of vanity, out of “touristic” motives, out of bandwagon-hype. Such would be, in some small way, a sacrilege. If a Catholic walks into one of the great churches of Christendom, forgets to genuflect, and starts grabbing pictures of the statues, hasn’t he sort of missed the point? And how much of an excuse does he really have?
Perhaps some person or place really speaks to you, and after having authentically encountered it you desire to catch a picture. That is quite a different phenomenon, as you have already genuinely engaged with what you now encounter through lenses, mirrors, and a screen. The Word became flesh, after all – He certainly did NOT become a digital picture.
In the meantime, let’s all sit back, relax, and actually experience the incarnational nature of our Faith, rather than neurotically re-immaterializing it.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: CTV’s coverage of the Papal audience of May 25, 2016